NEW YORK | She’s the most important political figure not on the stage Wednesday in the final presidential debate, yet Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been mentioned just once in the first three presidential and vice-presidential debates.
That could change with increasingly desperate Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain still looking for voters and with Mrs. Clinton in attendance as Mr. McCain and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, face off in Hempstead, N.Y.
“If there’s an opportunity to raise the Clinton name, it will be in this debate,” said Morris Reid, a Democratic communications strategist and former Commerce Department official under President Clinton.
Democrats have been thrilled with Mr. Obama’s performance in the first two debates, which polls showed he won.
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“There’s no question Senator Obama has gained substantially in the last two to three weeks,” said Sen. Bob Casey, Pennsylvania Democrat, saying the debates gave Mr. Obama a chance to demonstrate leadership “in the midst of an economic crisis.”
Mr. McCain’s supporters say he has raised the issues he wanted to raise, but has not broken through - a must for a candidate whose campaign acknowledges he is trailing by 6 percent in national polls.
A month ago, Mrs. Clinton’s blue-collar supporters were considered the key to Mr. McCain’s path to victory, and he was making active, public efforts to court them. That has receded, with the Republican mentioning her just once, in the first debate, praising her efforts to work on nuclear power. Mr. Obama has not mentioned her, nor did his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden. Jr., or Mr. McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Mr. Reid said he is surprised Mr. McCain hasn’t tried to do more with Mrs. Clinton’s former supporters.
“McCain’s team has been off of their footing and been off of their game, because they should have played that up. If you look back at the convention they were on their game and playing that up,” he said.
That included ads Republicans ran during the Democrats’ convention using Mrs. Clinton’s own criticisms of Mr. Obama. The ads were released, symbolically, at 3 a.m. - a takeoff on Mrs. Clinton’s own famous primary-season attack ad about whom voters trusted to answer a crisis phone call to the White House.
Mr. McCain’s Clinton voter strategy fizzled along with Mrs. Palin, who initially seemed to have broad appeal but after weeks of brutal press coverage now seems more limited in voters she can attract.
A poll last month showed more than 40 percent of supporters of Mrs. Clinton weren’t sold on backing Mr. Obama, though that percentage may have decreased as Mr. Obama has taken control of the race.
Still, Mrs. Clinton remains such a powerful figure that after Mr. McCain last week proposed a mortgage buyout plan in the debate his office leapt to tie it to a proposal Mrs. Clinton had made earlier - even though Mrs. Clinton’s office rejected that notion, and Mr. McCain in the debate said he alone deserved credit.
The McCain campaign is keeping its debate strategy close to the vest, but spokesman Tucker Bounds said their overall campaign plan still incudes pursuing Mrs. Clinton’s voters.
“In target states we’re focusing a lot of activity at reaching out to Clinton supporters who may hesitate at supporting an inexperienced candidate like Barack Obama who just doesn’t have a record of delivering what he’s talked about on the campaign trail,” Mr. Bounds said.
Fox News this week asked Mrs. Clinton whether Mr. McCain should follow her lead in taking “the gloves off” in her debates with Mr. Obama, but she said it’s not clear what the Republican can do in this final showdown.